Johanna Sinisalo: The Flying Dutchman
(Portti Special English Issue #1)
The queen of Finnish science fiction, Johanna Sinisalo, has won the Atorox Award for the year's best sf/f short story more often than anybody else, altogether seven times so far. Her first novel Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (Not before Sundown) won the country's most prestigious literary price, the Finlandia Award. Sinisalo has also become well known as a writer of comics and manuscripts for tv-series.
Therefore it was a cause for surprise to many that Sinisalo never participated in the most important Finnish short story contest annually organized by the Portti magazine in Tampere. When she finally sent the short story The Flying Dutchman to the contest, it impressively achieved the second price.
The Flying Dutchman is an independent part – I guess the last part – of Johanna Sinisalo's series of short stories about the planets of our Solar system. The earlier parts have been published in anthologies and sf magazines. Perhaps we may yet get to read the whole series within a single cover?
In The Flying Dutchman we have proceeded to the end of the solar system, all the way to Neptune. Planet divers, virtual pilots, plunge down to study the planetary atmosphere and especially its Great Dark Spot and the Scooter, a fast-moving bright formation. The planetary probe LeVerrier has a crew of four persons; two of them are planet divers.
What is the recipe to achieve such an elegant and clean-lined science fiction short story? First, you need information. Then, cut the information in small bits and sauté it in a pan to suitable softness (not too well-done). Then choose your persons. Two persons already suffice to develop enough conflicts, but three or four make for a more varied soup. These ingredients already are enough for a short story, but not necessarily for a science fiction story. You need the spice favoured by us all: sense of wonder. That makes even the plot incredibly light and spongy, at least when the cook is as experienced as Johanna Sinisalo.
Especially in the early parts of the story much time and energy is used to describe flying and diving: what it actually is and what it feels like on the different planets of our solar system. The descriptions are certainly creditable and fascinating, but at some point one gets bloated: "come on, I got that already".
Then we get to Neptune and the characters start so to speak unveiling their real selves. Especially the protagonist manages to surprise – she proves to be human instead of some space heroine. We also find out what the Scooter really is. At this point one has to enviously state that Sinisalo knows how to sprinkle the sense of wonder just the right amount, with some clever details.
Endings are notoriously difficult places for both sf and other short story writers, and that's where even Sinisalo falters a bit. Larsson's solution is rather strongly emphasized. One can swallow it – it's beautiful, even poetic. Yet its idealism is pretty glaring, especially since we have just found out through the protagonist how weak the human mind is in the face of temptations.
(Translated by Liisa Rantalaiho)